The U.S. Supreme Court made a significant decision this week that could give more than a thousand inmates serving life in prison without parole a chance at freedom.
During the 1990s, facing a real or perceived threat of increasing violent crime among teens, nearly every state amended its laws to make it easier for juveniles to be tried in adult court and face adult prison sentences.
More than half of states made transfer to adult court mandatory for violent crimes like murder, rape and assault with a weapon. In a number of states, adults convicted of murder faced a mandatory sentence of life without the possibility of parole.
Through the first decade of the 21st century, the number of juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison continued to grow as violent crime dipped to its lowest level in decades. In response, the U.S Supreme Court decided Miller v. Alabama in 2012 ruling that juveniles cannot receive a mandatory sentence of life without parole.
This week, in Montgomery v. Louisiana, the high court expanded Miller saying that the decision must be applied retroactively to an estimated 1,200 to 1,500 inmates concentrated in three states — Pennsylvania, Louisiana and Michigan — where state courts had decided that Miller was not retroactive.
In 1963, 17-year-old Henry Montgomery of Louisiana shot and killed a deputy sheriff. Montgomery was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the 6-to-3 majority, held that Montgomery and other similarly situated offenders were entitled to resentencing or parole consideration.
The new decision appears to go beyond the actual scope of the Miller ruling according to the SCOTUS Blog. Montgomery provides that in the future a newly convicted juvenile will be able to show, at the time of sentencing, that he is not beyond rehabilitation. The Court declared that life without parole — not just mandatory life without parole — is always unconstitutional for a juvenile unless he is found to be “irreparably corrupt” or “permanently incorrigible.”
How have we gotten to this point?
The best example lies in Pennsylvania. The keystone state has more lifers convicted as juveniles than any other state — with, by some estimates, as many as 500 such inmates.
In 1994, Tom Ridge was elected Pennsylvania’s governor and his first act was to convene a special legislative session on crime. A significant policy that grew out of the special session was that juveniles who were accused of murder were automatically to be charged as adults.
In Pennsylvania, if an offender is convicted of first degree murder the sentence is mandatory life in prison without the possibility of parole. That, in part, is why Pennsylvania has so many juvenile lifers.
In 2014, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that Miller was not retroactive — leaving the more than 500 inmates without hope once again. Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille took the U.S. Supreme Court to task for failing to address the issue of retroactivity in Miller.
However, the Pennsylvania General Assembly acted quickly after Miller, enacting legislation permitting courts going forward to impose a minimum of 35 years to life for offenders ages 15 to 17, and 25 to life for offenders 14 or younger.
As a result, a juvenile convicted of first degree murder in Pennsylvania could still be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Justice Kennedy acknowledged that under the Miller decision a judge “might encounter the rare juvenile offender who exhibits such irretrievable depravity that rehabilitation is impossible and life without parole is justified.”
The lesson here — as the high court has acknowledged by outlawing the death penalty for juveniles and abolishing life in prison for non-homicide offenses — is that juvenile brain development diminishes culpability and the young brain has a heightened capacity for change. As a result, a shadow is cast over the efficacy of mandatory life sentences for young offenders under any circumstances.
Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book The Executioner’s Toll, 2010 was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter @MatthewTMangino